Phong Nha, the new gem of Vietnam

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Until 2013, Phong Nha was just a small village where some cave enthusiasts used to go and discover the wonderful caves there. It was mostly a destination for local tourists who ventured on the boat tours to Phong Nha caves or dared to go to other sites that require more adventure, like Paradise cave. Then, suddenly, foreign tourists started to flow, and two years later it had become the second most popular destination for foreigners after Halong Bay, according to Lonely Planet.

How was that possible? Well, it is no coincidence that Phong Nha is the closest village to Soon Dong, the biggest cave in the world, which was just discovered in 2009 by a team of British explorers with the indispensable help of a local man named Ho Khanh. This gave a lot of publicity to the place, and although the tours inside Soon Dong are limited and very expensive, it allowed tourists to discover the other caves around, which are also wonderful and can be trekked in one day (two or three days for more distant ones, such as Hang En or Thu Lan).

The once quiet rural village where kids died of starvation 20 years ago is now a bustling village where everyone wants a share in the tourism boom. As you walk (or better, pedal) through the main street you will go through dozens of newly born hotels and restaurants that publicize western food, pizza, beer and hamburgers, with charming spelling mistakes, seeming to be the biggest hits.

But why are we talking about this in a blog about cycling? Because aside from this tourism gold rush there is another striking fact in the country of motorbikes: most tourists move around by bicycle. All homestays and hotels offer bikes for rent and it’s common to see groups of Western boys and girls in their twenties pedaling around the town by bicycles. The sportiest ones venture into the countryside with the bikes and park them in front of some of the caves near the road. It’s difficult to find a better place for cycling: there is barely any car, you are surrounded by nature and even the climate seems to help, the mountains bringing some fresh air (except during the hottest months in the summer). If you are in central Vietnam and you like cycling, it can be a good choice. You can even try cycling there from Hue; you can rent a bike in our office there if you don’t have one with you.

Fight the heat in Giang Dien waterfalls

waterfalls giang dien 2The last two or three months have been extremely hot in Ho Chi Minh City and around. Not that we are not used to hot, but this has been exceptional, people who have lived their whole lives in Saigon said they never experienced such a hot time for so long. With these temperatures, we are all waiting for the rainy season, but it’s taking a while for it to come and stay. To refresh yourself, you can wait for the rain, lock yourself up inside an aircon room or enjoy nature and freedom and discover one of the ecotourism gems around Ho Chi Minh City: Giang Dien Waterfalls.

Located just 50 km away from the city, in Dong Nai province, this is a perfect getaway for the Sunday and a way of having a good and refreshing time for cyclists. This coming Sunday june 14th, the Sunday Bike ride is organizing a trip there, and as usual it will be free for anyone bringing their own bike (for those who don’t, a cheap rental can be arranged). As you dip your feet in the Buong river, in front of the waterfalls, you will feel like you are so far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You could even believe you are in Dalat, if not for the temperature (no, it’s not as cool).

waterfalls giang dienAfter a relaxing bike ride which will start at 6:30 from Ben Thanh market, you can just rest, enjoy the nature, have lunch in some of the restaurants around or even do your own barbecue. If you still have enough energy, you can explore the rocky paths around the area, have a look at the plantations, or go for a swim. As it often happens with beautiful natural sites in Vietnam, there is a legend to make two of these waterfalls more mysterious. It is a love story, a sad one about two young people from the Ma ethnic group who were in love with each other and were not allowed to get married. In dramatic fashion, they decided to die together for their love in that same spot and thus created the twins waterfalls (Doi), one named Chang (Boy) and the other Nang (girl).

For the ones who would like to enjoy this place longer, there are two hotels in the area. It’s never a bad time to relax and enjoy nature.

The ideal weekend break in Vuon Xoai

Like Can Gio or Giang Dien Waterfall, Vuon XoaiEcotourism Park in Dong Nai Province is a peaceful oasis for Saigonese to visit for a picnic or sightseeing trip on a short weekend break.

Located 30 kilometers from HCMC in Tan Cang Village, Phuoc Tan Commune, Long Thanh District, and covering over 30 hectares, Vuon Xoai is a fun place where visitors can enjoy some outdoor games such as go-karting, swimming, tennis, fishing and ostrich riding. Visiting a crocodile swamp and tramping around a bamboo garden and orchard is also on offer to tourists.

If you are sitting at home having a quiet weekend, eating food or watching movies all day, why not get yourself out there to Vuon Xoai.

It’s not far from the city and for those who love a long walk on a weekend break, strolling around the bamboo garden or orchard, viewing cottages or the many bonsai trees and flowers is a good way to get some nice fresh air into your lungs and fresh local food is also good for your health.

If you like to contemplate or ponder life while you relax, a spot of fishing is a great choice as you take in the tranquil surroundings with the still water surface under the shade of trees, bamboo bridge and some small floating cottages on the lake.

If you like to just float on the still water and take it all in, there are tours around lakes or canals in the Mekong Delta on bamboo boats. However, tourists should make sure they put on life vests as a safety precaution.

Adventurous visitors can also try go-karting or ostrich riding.

Taking an electronic car at VND10,000 to go around the park is also good for those who are too tired to go the extra distance. Along the road, visitors have the chance to see crocodiles, caged bears, snakes, wild pigs, birds and peacocks.

There is no need to worry about getting thirsty or hungry as restaurants serve various Vietnamese dishes and drinks.

Visitors, who have plenty of time to spare, can stay overnight at some guest houses in the area and make a camp fire at night to top off an unforgettable trip. By My Tran in HCMC

Some visitors take a bamboo boat cruise along a lake in Vuon Xoai Ecotourism Park in Dong Nai Province

Go-karting is popular with young visitors in Vuon Xoai – Photos: My Tran

Thac Mai is beauty personified

Thac Mai (apricot waterfall) is located in Thac Mai tourism site in Dinh Quan District, Dong Nai Province and is a popular tourist site on the magical La Nga River. The good news is it’s only around 100 kilometers from HCMC.

Visitors should take Highway 20 and when they reach Dinh Quan turn right on the meandering road in the Tan Phu jungle and then face a 20 kilometer drive to the waterfall.

Thac Mai stretches for four kilometers of the La Nga River and has a large population of huge stones in unique shapes on both sides and on the river. There are also a number of caves that help add some mystery to the landscape.

Tourists who want to discover the waterfall from above should climb up to the Voi Phuc islet which is a giant rock shaped like an elephant lying in the middle of the river.

Standing on the islet and looking over the four sides, is a wonderful sight as you take in the beautiful waterfall, with its melodious sound of falling water, the surface sparkling under the sunlight and endless green jungle.

During spring, tourists can savor mango and guava and admire the beauty of the purple flowers of bang lang and apricot. On the way to the waterfall there is also a nice break area where you can rest your weary limbs in the Da Ban hot water stream which has temperatures from 50 to 60 degrees Celsius.

If you fancy a short trip out of the bustling city to relax with your family and friends, look no further than Thac Mai. By Kieu Giang in Dong Nai

A population of huge stones in unique shapes under Thac Mai waterfall